Saturday, January 12, 2008

Top Of China Buffet

757 W Appleway Ave
Coeur d'Alene, ID 83814
(208) 676-8888
Get directions

In the ongoing battle to feed my addiction to Chinese cuisine, I’ve experienced everything from the highest-rated Dim Sum restaurant in San Francisco to the lukewarm take-out of Safeway’s China Express.

With Dim Sum, elegantly dressed servers circulate from table to table with trays of small but delectable streamed and deep-fried goodies and even dessert, each item added to your bill as you choose it. In a way, the Chinese Buffet is the concept suburbanized, with greasy egg rolls in lieu of delicate shrimp dumplings and vanilla soft serve ice cream acting as a bland substitute for rich mango pudding.

Unfortunately, here in North Idaho we’ve yet to see the opening of a nice Dim Sum joint, but for those with the proper amount of bravery and intestinal fortitude, there are a handful of Chinese Buffet options to explore. Honestly, I’ve never had very good experiences at any of these places, but it was with an open mind and a growling tummy I recently decided to revisit the Top of China Buffet in Coeur d’Alene.

Right away, I noticed that the atmosphere had become less intensely surreal since my last visit, which was quite a few years ago. I seem to recall dozens of black and white clad hosts and hostesses standing silently at attention amid the gigantic backlit murals of the Great Wall, waiting anxiously for the next person to swallow their final bite of food, so they could swoop in immediately and snatch the dirty plates away.

Their faces blank and expressionless, they would emerge from the kitchen like Twilight Zone zombies to replenish the buffet and scan the room for empty soda cups to refill. They’d respond to my repeated attempts at mirth and conversation with nods and chilly stares. These host-bots seem to have dwindled away, replaced by what appears to be a large family unit, who while not exactly warm and fuzzy in demeanor, seem quite a bit more relaxed and unafraid to let the occasional smile cross their faces.

The buffet restaurant has replaced the neighborhood coffee shop in our culture as the place for seniors and retirees to hang out and gab at each other, and I could tell some of the patrons here were very regular regulars. The hostess chose to seat me directly in the middle of their zone, and they eyed me suspiciously like I was riff-raff from the city invading their pastoral morning coffee klatch. I sheepishly ordered a tall Coke and headed up to the buffet to begin the culinary self-abuse.

I decided it’d be a good idea to take a “try a small bit of everything” approach. I had arrived early in the lunch hour so everything appeared to be fairly fresh and there were no slow-moving can’t-deciders to work around. I decided to ease my way into things gently on my first trip through, choosing items from the colorful fruit and veggie area.

When I returned to my table, the regular regulars had resumed their conversation, which from what I could gather was about the tragedy of horse incontinence, which when blended in with the blare of Celine Dion on the music system, made for a considerably harsh dining atmosphere.

Luckily, I was hungry as a Shanghai tiger as I bit into my Chinese sugar donut. So white and starchy, I adore those fattening little greaseballs, and wouldn’t mind paying the price of admission to eat nothing but them. The bananas in mystery red goo were passable, but the cherry jello squares had an inedible chewy layer – yuck. Methinks it takes some effort to make bad jello, and Top of China duly succeeded. The veggie salad was actually quite tasty, but what isn’t when it’s swimming in Ranch Dressing? The coleslaw was uninspired and the deviled egg wasn’t devilled at all, just plain ungodly, merely a hard boiled egg with a fraudulent sprinkling of paprika.

The “sushi” rolls, while not anything to really write mama-san about, were surprisingly acceptable. The shrimp roll was coated in what appeared to be an actual layer of bright orange roe and tasted very fresh, brought alive even further when soaked in plenty of wasabi and soy. At first I was a little cheesed out by the rolls consisting of BBQ pork instead of seafood, but it turned out to be a brilliantly tasty innovation.

For my second run through, I set about conquering some soup and main dishes, plopping just a taste of each item on my plate. Each time I returned to the table, I was pleased to see that my Coke had mysteriously refilled itself, the only logical explanation since I never once actually saw anyone do it. Taste wise, the hot and sour soup wasn’t either, instead it was oddly sweet with a hint of smoke and with none of the sinus-shattering bang that makes the dish normally so great.

I had picked up four varieties of chicken to sample, and the best was the coconut pineapple chicken, which had a great flavor but the undercooked coating had a cruel raw pancake effect. Then, in descending order of edibility, lemon chicken (overcooked and jerky-like), almond chicken (gravy recipe: flour, water, salt), and hot pepper chicken (rubbery with jaundice yellow pallor). How the almond green beans tasted fishy I don’t know, since there were no fish dishes nearby, and the fried rice was blah. I topped off the round with another Chinese sugar donut – I simply cannot resist them.

I decided to dip in a bit to the “American” table on my third and final foray. I took one bite of the pepperoni pizza before giving up in despair and the steamed cabbage and carrots were so salty that one bite made me guzzle my entire Coke. I felt like I was being a little risky when I took some of the baked salmon, but it turned out to be the highlight of the entire meal. Simultaneously lemony and peppery, it was moist and cooked to a flaky perfection.

Finally, for dessert was a small dollop of vanilla soft serve atop a pink-frosted piece of cake that had the same texture (and flavor) as a small chunk of tempurpedic mattress foam.

I sat spacing out to a Mariah Carey ballad, twenty-odd different food items suddenly battling it out in my confused and distended belly. The hostess brought me back to earth with the delivery of my check and fortune cookie, leaving me with a grimace-like smile and a quick “thank you!” My fortune read “Q. What is contained within everything? A. Wisdom.” In other words, “that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, even bad jello.”


Idaho Dad said...

I have a soft spot for the Top of China Buffet, as it was the first restaurant we ate at after moving to Coeur d'Alene nearly five years ago. But it didn't take long for us to sour on the place. After a couple more visits, we started realizing the food was just sort of BLAH. That, plus stomach aches for the whole family, has kept us away for a very long time.

Which is sad, because I like buffets every now and then. Coeur d'Alene needs a good buffet place like Golden Corral or Old Country Buffet.

Mari Meehan said...

Oh my. This is one of the best and funniest reviews I've ever read! When I was working for a winery in Washington our foodie was also the restaurant reviewer for the local paper. I'd love to put the two of you together for a comparison tasting! I'd be rolling on the floor!

Katrina said...

Speaking of sushi, have you made it over to Syringa on 4th yet? I like Takara, but I keep hearing good things about Syringa and would love to hear what you think. I really enjoy reading your reviews--just the right combination of information, impression, and humor. Thanks!

Genevieve said...

Syringa is a wonderful restaunt! My aunt and uncle is the owners so i go their alot! :-)

Anonymous said...

Top of China has a great General Tso chicken. The crab ragnon pastries are very good as are the little donuts. Their spring rolls good. Breaded shrimp, lemon chicken, coconut chicken good as are the clams, pork, crab, & mussels. Salads are very crispy as they should be. I really like several varieties of their sushi. Vegetables - the mushrooms & broccoli are good.
I don't go there for the American food so no comment although the pizza doesn't appeal to me at all, I'm Italian & I'm used to real pizza not the stuff any of these places call pizza here in CDA.
I've eaten at Top of China 11 yrs now & still find General Tso chicken & crab ragnon pastries will always be my favorites. Add a few pieces of sushi, a little broccoli, a few mushrooms, & a spring roll I'm quite happy. Dessert some pineapple & a bowl of frozen yogurt complete it.

Anonymous said...

Interesting critique about how poor the China Buffet is, since you start your meal off with a very American coke. That you expect your local experience to be in anyway comparable to a highly rated San Fransisco establishment makes it all the more laughable.

Anonymous said...

@The fellow who posted on Sept. 19th, 2013:

The blogger doesn't say he expects the experience to be comparable to a San Francisco establishment. He simply states that he's ate in numerous Chinese places including highly rated ones in San Francisco. Either you read a very different article then I did, or you're reading too much into his comments.

As for starting off with a "very American Coke", so what? I'm sure in a "Highly rated San Francisco" establishment one can buy a "Very American Coke" as well. I seriously doubt that the author of this article considered Coke to be an authentic Chinese drink.

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